Though the television show Will and Grace was incredibly popular while I was in high school and college, I only ever saw about one minute of it, and in that one minute, I heard a spoiler for the movie The Usual Suspects.
When I finally sat down to watch The Usual Suspects a few years after that, I already knew who the villainous mastermind was. Popular wisdom says I should have been bored because I already knew whodunnit. But instead of focusing on the fact that I knew what the ending twist was, I was fascinated by how it all unfolded. Because I couldn’t predict the strange turns the story took, I enjoyed it despite that major spoiler.
I’ve never minded spoilers. I’ve even spoiled myself for the endings of television shows and movies, just because I am so curious as to what happened. I’ve done this for shows like Game of Thrones and Doctor Who because I didn’t want to wait. I’ve spoiled myself for the Avengers movies because I wanted to know what all the pop culture references were about without sitting through movies I wasn’t interested in. Some spoilers I know about because a work of film or literature has been out there for so long and is discussed so often that it’s part of the cultural landscape. I knew the endings of Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice before I ever cracked open the books or watched the movies. The ending wasn’t the point. It was the journey I undertook while reading the books that was compelling and the delight in seeing books the come to life on screen that I loved, not the surprise of the ending.
I understand why people don’t want to see spoilers before they start a long-awaited book or movie. It’s exciting to see the story unfold in front of you without knowing what’s going to happen beforehand. It’s exhilarating to figure things out just before the characters do, and it’s just plain fun to see an unexpected plot twist happen (well, sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it makes you wonder what the writer or director was thinking when they came up with that one).
But in my humble opinion, unpredictability is overrated.
When we approach a story, especially if it’s genre-fiction, we already know the basic ending. The detective in the murder mystery will figure out who the killer is. The good guys in a fantasy novel will eventually defeat the villain. After facing extreme weather and bandits, the cowboy in a Western will ride off into the sunset. The crew of the space ship will escape the aliens and/or the spatial anomaly. Even when a writer seeks to subvert the traditional ending, the ending tends to be the opposite of what is generally expected. The bad guy wins the day. The killer isn’t caught (at least not in this book). The space ship crew is defeated by the aliens.
Are there really any surprise endings anymore, or are they just endings we didn’t think to look for?
And honestly, do we want the completely unexpected ending?
Right now, it’s a TV trend for directors to do everything they can to subvert a viewer’s expectations. The controversial ending of Game of Thrones, for example, ended up with one of the least likely characters winding up on the throne, and fans are still complaining about it. The showrunners of another HBO series, Westworld refilmed an entire episode because some fans correctly guessed a plot twist. The jury’s out as to whether this helped or hindered the show (I have no opinion either way. I’ve never seen Westworld). But for all the complaints about books and shows being ‘predictable’, I say that we’re all looking for at least a little predictability in the media we consume. We don’t turn on a World War II movie and think, ‘I wonder whose going to win this?’. We complain if the book-to-movie adaptation strays from the narrative. We don’t watch our favorite movie or reread our favorite series for the fifth time expecting things to end differently. That’s what fanfiction is for, and if we want to find out what might happen if Lizzie doesn’t eventually say yes to Mr. Darcy, there’s an entire archive we can turn to.
At some level, we crave a bit of predictability. If our lives are out of kilter we turn to our old favorites to provide a bit of grounding. We might not know if we’ll have a job tomorrow, but we do know that Lizzie Bennet will eventually say ‘yes’ and that Bilbo will make it there and back again.
That’s not to say that predictability is always good. If an author telegraphs a plot twist hundreds of pages in advance and lurches from clue to clue like a drunken zombie, we’re going to quickly get tired of the book. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, a thoroughly unpredictable story will get exhausting with events seeming to happen for no reason at all. The trick, then, is to strike the proper balance between blandly predictable and exhaustingly unpredictable. Yes, the good guys win in the end, but how they defeat the bad guys is the key to the whole story.
So when I find out (by mistake or on purpose) what happens at the end of a show or a book, I’m not upset or disappointed. If anything I will be even more curious. If I find out that Character A dies and readers are upset about it, I want to find out why they’re upset, if I will be upset, too, and how the story builds to make Character A’s death inevitable.
Because sometimes it’s not the destination that matters. It’s the journey that defines you.